Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The End of the Olds Wagon Works

I just finished an article for Farm Collector magazine that’s slated for the August issue of this year.  The opening paragraph shares some survival challenges that many wagon makers faced a few years after the turn of the 20th century.  While some, more dominant agricultural brands like John Deere, International Harvester, and Emerson Brantingham were busy buying up wagon companies during this period, others were starting to have trouble making ends meet.  The automobile was making its presence felt and there would be no turning back.

As early as 1904, there were literally hundreds of firms building autos in the U.S.  Reinforcing this pressure, larger wagon brands were tying up wood resources, making it hard for many competitors to acquire adequate materials.  Times were changing and changing fast.  For horse drawn vehicle makers, it was the beginning of the end.  Hard times did not discriminate.  Large, small, and intermediately-sized builders suffered.  One strong regional maker that seemed to quickly succumb to shifts in consumer buying habits was the Olds Wagon Works in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  The business was established in 1881 and had been well known for building quality, reputable products.  Nonetheless, at just over a quarter century in age, the firm had decided to face the music.

The Olds Wagon brand was a strong competitor during the late 1800’s.

An article from 1907 outlines the closing of the buiness...

“The Olds Wagon Works, one of the oldest manufacturing establishments in the city, will retire from business.  Scarcity in timber, general rise in the price of skilled labor, with no corresponding increase in price in the finished product, are the reasons assigned.  The plant will close as soon as the present raw material on hand is worked up or disposed of.  The Olds Wagon Works was organized in 1881 by Henry G. Olds, father of the men who are now at the head of the institution, and at first about 200 men were employed in the institution but of late years as demand for their product decreased the force dwindled until at present there are about seventy-five men employed, nearly all of whom are skilled wagon builders.”

For modern day collectors, this type of information not only provides historical background for individual vehicle provenance but also can be helpful in narrowing down a production timeframe.  Based on several period articles we’ve uncovered, it indeed appears that all manufacturing of Olds brand wagons ceased in 1907.  It’s an important detail as any surviving Olds wagons will clearly be beyond a century in age. 

With multiple patents and innovative designs to its credit, the company was clearly a progressive competitor.  Late 19th century advertisements claimed that the wheels had 3/4 to 7/8 inch more spoke tenon in the hub.  As a result, the company professed that the wheels were “three times stronger” than others.  Peak output of the wagon works is said to have been around 50 vehicles per day.  While the production rate was not as high as prolific builders like Studebaker, it was significant enough to have been a solid competitor to just about any wagon builder.  Certainly, the Olds plant was far from a small-time operation.  As a parting thought, we’ve received emails in the past asking if there is any connection between the Olds Wagon Works and the Oldsmobile brand of automobile.  Other than similar names, the businesses were not connected.  

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